How many of you have begun receiving Christmas cards already? How many of you have already sent yours? That must mean the rest of us haven’t started yet – or we don’t plan on sending any. Sometimes Nancy and I don’t get ours out until early January – at which point they become Epiphany cards.
Now – how many of you have received – or plan to send – Christmas greeting cards with John the Baptist on the cover? No one? Why not? Every year – in every Advent season – we read about him. It’s John’s purpose to prepare the way for the Christ – the coming Messiah. So – every year – before we meet the Christ born in Bethlehem, it seems that we have to meet – we have to listen to – his harsh words of judgment.
So – no John the Baptist greeting cards?
I must confess that I have never sent one. Never received one. I have never even seen a John the Baptist greeting card. Can you picture it?
“Greetings from our house to yours. Our thoughts to you at this time are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire.”
Just kind of warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?
And yet – even though we would never think of sending a greeting card with John’s message – every year in the church – in every Advent season – we have to meet John before we meet Jesus. And again – it is John’s message that we need to hear – the message that tells us to repent – to prepare the way of the Lord.
But just what does it mean to repent? Repentance begins with
acknowledging your need for forgiveness. You know – a small dose of healthy guilt will often make us feel that way. And of course you can’t repent of something that you don’t identify. So the first thing you need to do in order to repent is to identify just what it is that you need to be forgiven of.
The second thing after you admit you have sinned – you’ve identified the sin – is to express contrition. To say to God, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry” for my sins – things I’ve said that I shouldn’t have said – things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done. Even thoughts I have thought that I shouldn’t have thought. That’s called contrition. That’s called sorrow for sin. And it’s an important step.
But repentance is so much more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry,” doesn’t take it far enough. Repentance at the heart of its meaning is that your life gets turned around. Turned right around. 1800. Go in the other direction. If your life is going in the wrong direction – turn it around. That’s what repentance means.
And yet I know that you know – that when we are honest with ourselves – honest with God – and honest with each other – I know just how hard that is to do. It’s not something I can do all by myself. It’s God who gets us turned around. It is God who reaches out – God who touches – God who embraces – us. And only when that happens can we hope to repent – and ask God to turn our lives around.
You see – we carry around a lot of baggage. A lot of stuff and junk that’s dragging us down. The problem is that we can’t get rid of that baggage on our own. Only God can do that for us.
So John calls us to repent. And that might not sound like good news. Who wants somebody else to tell them they need to repent? “Hey buddy – you need to repent!” And yet – and yet – the call to repent is really good news. God hears our prayers – God hears our confession – God forgives – AND – God gets to work in your life – in my life – and gets us turned around. That’s Good News!
And there’s more good news from John. Listen to what he says. He says, “One who is more powerful than I” – in other words, Jesus – “One who is more powerful than I is coming…, to gather the wheat” – that’s you and me folks – “into his granary.” Again, a message just like last week that Christ is coming again – and when he comes – he will take us with him to be with him forever.
Repentance – true repentance – comes about when God reaches out to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ – and embraces us baggage and all.
Let me share with you a story by David Mazel, who once wrote a short newspaper story entitled, “The Night I Ran Away.”
“Perhaps every child has thought, at one time or another, of running away from home. Most do not, having the wisdom to get over hurt feelings and stay put in the warmth of their parents’ love. But some actually do run away. I was one of them.”
“I even snitched my father’s suitcase to pack my things in – my father’s beloved suitcase. It had belonged originally to his great-grandfather, who brought it with him from Poland to America, with all his worldly goods in it. Though small – 2’ X 2’ – it was deep and sturdy. Outside it was soft brown leather, and inside, mulberry-colored cloth. Many fingers, thimbles, needles and threads had mended and re-mended it over the years. Its handle had a lining of genuine fleece – very sweet to hold.
“Full of hurt I have long since forgotten – I left on the door to my room the note, ‘Papa, Mama, I’m running away. You’ll be sorry.’”
“Then I sneaked out of the house, carrying the suitcase packed with my favorite toys, books and clothes.
“It was night, and snowing heavily. Clouds and clouds of snow swirled endlessly ahead. Flakes landed in my eyelashes, sticking there and making me blink. Light in lamp-posts high above the blotted out streets and sidewalks seemed to spin and spin ever more slowly, like tops forgotten by sleepy children.
“I got as far as a hill overlooking railroad tracks, about two blocks from home. A big sooty blur that was a locomotive pulling a long line of freight cars puffed by. For a moment, I had the notion to run down the hill and hop aboard, to go make my brave way in the world alone.
“But then, I thought of my father, and how in his work he often had to go places, and how lost he would be without his suitcase. And I thought, too, of my warm room. I turned back and headed home.
“Halfway there, my father met me. He had followed my footprints in the snow. I stopped before him, feeling foolish and guilty. ‘It’s not mine,’ I said, holding the suitcase out to him. ‘It’s yours.’
“He took it, and then knelt down and embraced me. He wouldn’t let me walk back home but insisted on carrying me. With one hand he carried the suitcase, and with the other, snug against his shoulder, me.
“My mother was waiting for us on the lighted porch. When she saw me, all sticky-wet with snow, she didn’t know whether to scold me or cry for gladness. She wrung her hands and said, ‘Just look at that boy!’
“And then she gathered me into her arms.”
That’s the way it is with God, you know. We can run away from God – run away from the things of God – run away from the people of God. I don’t know how far any of us might ever get away – but let me tell you. When we run away – when we leave the comfort of God’s house – I have it on good authority that God will come after us –looking for us. And when he finds us – he takes our old, filthy baggage, and removes those burdens from us. He reaches out and embraces us, and gathers us in to his open, waiting arms. And he covers us with His holiness – His righteousness – as a gift.
During this Advent season, we need to listen to John. Anything that prevents the coming of the Christ of Christmas into our hearts – into our lives – or into our homes – whatever it is – it needs to be identified – a sorrow for sin expressed – and then there needs to be a turning away from whatever it is that keeps the Christ of Christmas at arm’s length. No matter what it is. That’s what we need to run away from. Run away from what separates us from God – and into the arms of a loving God who is just waiting to embrace us.
The Good News is that God makes this possible. God makes repentance possible. And when repentance happens – real change – real transformation – a new life in Jesus Christ can begin!
Jesus is God’s embrace. The Good News of Advent and Christmas is that through Jesus Christ God has come. God has come to you. God has come looking for you. So no matter what you’ve done – no matter where you’ve been – no matter how long you’ve been away – through Jesus Christ God comes to us – embraces us – and welcomes us home!